In December 2020, a 110-million-year-old dinosaur from Brazil stunned scientists with its furlike filaments and the spearlike feathers sprouting from its shoulders. But Ubirajara jubatus, as the scientists named the creature, is now renowned not just for its striking features. It has also sparked a legal and ethical controversy that has pitted German paleontologists and officials, who claim the fossil, against the Brazilian scientific community, which wants it back in the country. The dispute culminated last week when the journal Cretaceous Research retracted the paper describing the new dinosaur, leaving further study of Ubirajara in limbo.
The retraction, and the fierce campaign that led up to it, has also intensified scrutiny of the hundreds of other fossils—some still undescribed—exported from developing countries in the past, often under questionable circumstances. “I am happy with the outcome,” says Aline Ghilardi, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. “It may help to reduce the interest in illegal removal of fossils from countries that protect their heritage, such as Brazil and Mexico, and [it] definitely will encourage more transparent and ethical research.”
As soon as the paper appeared online on 13 December 2020, many Brazilian paleontologists questioned the legality of the fossil’s export from Brazil. They say the fossil, which is deposited at the State Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK) in Germany, lacked proper export permits and demanded its return.
According to a 1942 Brazilian law, collecting fossils requires permits from the National Mining Agency (ANM), and any fossils found belong to the state. A 1990 decree adds that the export of fossils must be approved by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and foreign researchers must collaborate with a Brazilian institution to study them.
In the case of Ubirajara, SMNK paleontologist Eberhard Frey and his co-authors wrote in the paper that the fossil was “brought to Germany along with scientific samples in 1995” and that authorization for the export was granted on 1 February of that year by an agent of the National Department of Mineral Production (now ANM). The permit, which Science has seen, authorized Frey to transport “two boxes containing calcareous samples with fossils, without any commercial value, with the main objective to proceed with paleontological studies” at SMNK. (José Betimar Melo Filgueira, the now-retired official who signed it, told Brazilian news portal G1 last year that the researchers “also needed authorization from the Ministry of Science and Technology.”)
However, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Science, Research and Art of Baden-Württemberg state in Germany, which manages SMNK, told Science last week that press accounts of the 1995 export are inaccurate. The fossil was not brought to Germany by Frey, the spokesperson said. Instead, it was imported in 2006 by a private company and acquired 3 years later, in 2009, by SMNK. Frey did not respond to a request for comment on the conflicting accounts.
The fossil’s publication last year was followed by an intense week of thousands of social media posts using the hashtag #UbirajaraBelongstoBR, accusing the authors and SMNK of illegally taking the fossil out of the country. The journal temporarily withdrew the paper on 24 December 2020 while the controversy played out.
In the months that followed, the Brazilian scientific community, citizens, and the Federal Prosecution Office asked SMNK to clarify the fossil’s legal provenance and to repatriate the fossil. Last month, the Baden-Württemberg ministry backed the museum’s ownership claim. In a statement, it said the Ubirajara fossil was “demonstrably legally acquired” under German law and international conventions and that “all specimens in the SMNK collections, including those from Brazil, are property of the State of Baden-Württemberg.” SMNK holds more than 40 other fossils from Brazil, says Felipe Pinheiro, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Pampa, São Gabriel.
The ministry’s ownership claim outraged the Brazilian paleontology community. “I am speechless,” says Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí. It also failed to satisfy editors at Cretaceous Research. Last week, the journal decided to permanently withdraw the paper, “given that concerns regarding permissions for specimen export remain unresolved 9 months after its initial publication,” a spokesperson for Elsevier, which publishes the journal, told Science.
The journal also updated its policy on fossil provenance earlier this month to say it will not accept papers about specimens “that are suspected to have been collected and exported illegally from their countries of origin, are of uncertain provenance, or are deposited in private collections.” This update resembles recent policy changes at other journals, such as Science, Nature, Nature Ecology & Evolution, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“For Elsevier the internet aggression was evidently sufficient to permanently withdraw the paper,” Frey wrote in an email to Science. “The pressure apparently reached too high a level and they have a reputation to lose.”
The permanent withdrawal of the paper has rekindled Brazilian demands for the fossil’s repatriation. “It’s the right thing to do,” says Alexander Kellner, a paleontologist and director of the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. And the Baden-Württemberg ministry is now reconsidering its position. The spokesperson told Science it will “intensively examine the processes again” and is open to talking “with the Brazilian side in order to explore the possibilities of an agreeable solution.”
Ubirajara is far from unique. In a preprint posted in June, scientists analyzed about 28,000 papers on fossils published in the past 30 years. They found that Germany, the United Kingdom, and France have each contributed more than 10% of paleontology papers but that most such research—88%, in the case of Germany—was carried out with fossils from abroad. More than half of the German papers did not include local authors—a practice some researchers call “parachute science” and journals are starting to tackle.
Some paleontologists argue that fossils obtained from developing countries such as Brazil and Morocco are better off at institutions in Europe and the United States, where they can be safely stored; they note the fire that engulfed Brazil’s National Museum 3 years ago. “The museums in Brazil appear to be severely underfunded,” says David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, a co-author of the Ubirajara paper.
But Brazilian scientists counter that disaster can strike anywhere, pointing to the fire that gutted Notre Dame de Paris in 2019. “We have good science, we have good scientists, we have infrastructure to take good care of this material,” Ghilardi says.
The controversy has prompted other researchers to repatriate Brazilian fossils voluntarily. This week, for example, a spider fossil described in May and 35 other specimens currently at the University of Kansas’s Natural History Museum will return to Brazil, a spokesperson there told Science.
Meanwhile, the retraction of the Ubirajara paper has left scientists wondering what will happen with the new species and other undescribed fossils at SMNK. “As long as the paper is unavailable, this species becomes nonexistent to science,” Pinheiro says. “It’s like a second extinction!”